Saturday, 30 January 2010

'The land of England', by Dorothy Hartley

This is a detailed description of English Country life and customs ‘through the ages’ – but concentrating on the civilization that emerged in the late Anglo-Saxon period up to what was finally destroyed by the industrial and agricultural revolutions of the 19th and 20th Centuries. The author wrote many books on this theme, and had an unrivalled knowledge of country life. She was best known for her classic and comprehensive book ‘Food in England’. Her knowledge is truly miraculous – you would think she could only know what she knew by living in a Medieval village all her life!

I love this book – for the depth of the knowledge Ms Harley displays, for the many wonderful drawings she did herself and above all for the sheer quality of her writing. She writes with passion, vividness and clarity. I found this on my father’s bookshelf and he kindly gave it to me.

Here are a few snippets of the hundreds of things she describes: types of grass in the pasture, winter fodder for cattle and sheep, making hedges and fences, ploughing methods, selecting and protecting seeds, cattle rearing, making cream, butter and cheese, sheep dogs, shepherd crooks, shepherd’s music, weeding, fertilising, sowing, harvesting, threshing, shearing, measuring wool, weaving, dyeing, lanolin, tallow, scythes, haystacks, making ropes, bee keeping, milling, bread-making, beer-making, basket-making, timber cutting, wood turning, charcoal making, thatching, swine keeping, slaughtering, droving, saddlery, smithy work, leather tanning, window-making, farmer’s feast days, coins, markets, trade, bread-making, pickling, cooking, medicines, herbs, candles and torches.

As a modern, urban man, I realise my almost total ignorance in how to look after myself and my environment. These peasants had so much knowledge and practical ability, passed down from generation to generation, in self-sufficient village units. They were generalists, and yet better at any of the single activities listed above than I am. Could I make a willow basket? Could I kill a pig and use every part of it productively? It makes one humble and conscious how totally dependent we have become on the complex industrial society in which we live.

I have to admire the skill and mastery of basic technology that our ancestors have – knowledge that we have almost completely lost, due to the fundamental break from the land caused by the industrial revolution. It overthrows ideas of progress and any idea that we are superior to our ancestors. It also reminds us that the basic cloth of history was woven by ordinary men and women, who were tough, resourceful and self-reliant. Ms Hartley puts us fleetingly back in touch with that past, reminding us of the ultimate importance of the land for the survival of all of us.

The knowledge that these peasant societies carried was, in some ways, superior to the ‘scientific’ knowledge of our modern society. Co-incidentally to writing this review, I have been reading about environmental degradation caused recently by farming and logging practices: the salinisation of soils, the poisoning of rivers by artificial fertilizer run-off, the erosion of land and polluting of rivers caused by clear logging, the increased fuel-load per acreage caused by over-zealous fire-fighting policies and so forth. The scale of these environmental disasters is threatening our ability to feed ourselves. Of course we cannot go back to Medieval practices wholesale – but there must be lessons to learn.

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